Where to start? First of all, gone is veteran Jalen Jefferson, the fifth-leading tackler on the defense from last season, and second amongst linebackers. He’s graduated. Next, we found out that Nathan Broussard – who could have potentially applied for a medical hardship and gotten a sixth year – wouldn’t go that route. One down. Then, before missing out on the Armed Forces Bowl, Michael Barton (nine games, 25 tackles) decided that he would take the graduate transfer route (and he’ll be headed to Arizona, which does not play the Bears this year). Next up was Jake Kearney, who announced that he would medically retire, leaving one year on the table. The last blow was veteran Hardy Nickerson, the defensive MVP last season and leading tackler (112) who also took the graduate transfer route and headed to play for his father at Illinois. In total, the Bears lost 87 games’ worth of experience they thought they’d have, and 48 starts.
"We have more depth at that position than people think, but we need to stay healthy," head coach Sonny Dykes said. "We don't need to get a bunch of guys banged up."
It’s hard to really put three names here, because given the depth issues, the Bears are almost certainly going to play nickel for much of the season. But, given that the post-spring depth chart lists SAM, WILL and MIKE, we’ll play that game, for now.
Now, in reality, I think this winds up being Downs and Davison at WILL, with Anoa’i and Derron Brown at SAM, in nickel configurations. Tongilava missed all of last year with injury, but he started getting reps late in spring. I think he’ll push for action. Beyond that, Kunaszyk will be an immediate contributor. He's only third here because we haven't seen him against D1 competition just yet, but I'd bet he's a regular in the rotation, and could pull down a few starts at either one of the outside positions.
Dike played two years with Nevada, and redshirted last year after transferring. In those two years, Dike played in 20 games, with four starts, tallying 26 tackles and one pass breakup. That gives the Bears some depth here, but I think Brown emerges as the top dog.
"He's probably made as many plays as anybody, for us, defensively," Dykes said of Brown. "He's a guy who's shown up a bunch. I think it's a good position for him. We haven't had a guy that's been a great blitzed at that position, and he's got a knack for blitzing and being able to defeat some running back block, and has been explosive to the quarterback. It's been a real pleasant surprise in that regard. He's a good athlete, and a guy who's developing all the time, and he's got to keep getting bigger and bigger ... He'll be big enough to be an every-down guy, especially with all the spread teams we're going to see."
DeVante Wilson also chimed in on Brown: "He had a pretty good spring, blitzing through those A gaps and B gaps, he times it perfectly. I think he's going to have a bigger role this year, too."
So did offensive tackle Steven Moore: "He's hard to block. He runs right through the gap. He's good at linebacker. I think him switching to linebacker was good for him, good for us."
Position of Greatest Strength
WILL. Wherever Brown and Kunaszyk are, that’s where the greatest strength of this linebacking corps is. A converted safety, Brown makes it into every conversation I’ve had with Sonny Dykes about the linebacking corps. He was a constant presence in the backfield, a pass rusher with very natural instincts and he has the speed to drop back into coverage, when he needs to. It certainly helps that he began his time at Cal as a safety. Kunaszyk is a sledge hammer with a hot motor. Both can be very effective pass rushers, and combined with Davison, there's more quality depth at WILL than at any of the other positions.
Position of Greatest Concern
MIKE. With both Barton (who came in as an inside linebacker) and Nickerson gone, Downs will have to hold down the fort. As I've said, I think he's got the most upside out of any linebacker on this list, he has the best sideline-to-sideline speed of any of the traditional linebackers (excluding Brown), and he's arguably the most exciting (again, save for Brown). But, there aren't any true middle linebackers behind him. If he goes down for any reason, or the Bears play against a speed spread-to-run team (Oregon) and have to rotate, I can see that being a perfect storm.
Confidence level about depth?
Low to medium. The additions of Kunaszyk and freshman Cameron Goode certainly help, and given the fact that Cal will play more nickel than 4-3 base, the Bears will have six linebackers for two spots, instead of six for three, but one or two injuries (both Anoa'i and Tongilava went down last year) make depth across the board very dodgy.
Where does this position group rank on your team from strongest to biggest area of concern?
It's probably third on the list of most concern, behind the defensive backfield and the defensive line. From talking with the staff, I know they think this group is way more athletic than the groups they’ve had in the past. That’s all well and good, but one or two injuries does not a large margin for error make. Beyond that, what personnel there is, is inexperienced. Instead of 10 players with 73 total starts among them at linebacker, Cal has seven players with 13 total starts. That’s a lot of experience to lose.